An Old Minnesota Jail Is Now a Leader for Inmate Mental Health

MPR News

By Dan Gunderson

When Clay County officials started planning to replace its jail, the oldest in the state, they gathered around a table to start building a wish list for the new jail’s design.

“One of the first things we talked about, one of the big needs we felt, was having proper housing for those individuals in our custody that have mental health and behavioral issues,” recalls Julie Savat, the jail’s administrator.

Staffers visited psychiatric wards at local hospitals and used some of what they learned to tell architects what they wanted to see in a behavioral health jail unit. At the top of their list: A quiet area away from the rest of the jail population, individual cells and a shared space outside those individual cells.

The new, $52 million jail opened this fall in Moorhead with 209 beds. Its 18-bed behavioral health unit is in the back of the building. Soundproofing helps keep the noise down, and inmates housed there can get mental health care without leaving the unit.

It’s a unique design for a Minnesota jail.

“Typically, in multi-floor facilities, the area from the upper floor to the lower is open to below,” said Tim Thompson, who directs the Minnesota Department of Corrections’ inspection and enforcement unit. “The physical plant design for Clay County is that there is a hard floor separating the upper housing from the lower. This was designed to help mitigate sound transfer, which has been known to affect some persons will mental illness.”

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